The continuing situation in the Crimea proves that political realism remains the dominant theory that governs international relations today. Over the past century, many attempts have been made to alter the way international relations are conducted. Former President of the United States and noted progressive scholar Woodrow Wilson gave voice to this desire with his “Fourteen Points” proposal to end World War I and the creation of the League of Nations. Negotiation, compromise, and collective security were supposed to replace intimidation, invasion, and war as the primary tools of statecraft. The League failed to prevent the outbreak of World War II, and the U.S. declined to even join the body.
The aftermath of World War II saw a renewed effort on this front with the establishment of the United Nations (UN,) but just as the League was undermined by the emergence of fascist regimes in Germany and Japan, the UN found itself largely at the mercy of the two world superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Both states possessed the ability to veto most formal actions by the body, making any sort of action or intervention difficult. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union did little to alleviate this problem, as the U.S., Russia, and to a lesser extent China, still use their veto power to prevent the UN from taking actions that are against their national interest.
This is the connection between the Crimea, political realism, and the continuing state of international relations. Despite the intensions of organizations such as the UN, negotiation and compromise continue to take a “back seat” to the reality of power politics and national interest. When the principles of negotiation, cooperation, etc. come into conflict with concepts such as national interest and the expansion of power, negotiation and its brethren almost always lose.
How is this exemplified in the Crimea? Article I of the UN Charter states that the self-determination of peoples is one of the underlying principles of relations between states and should be respected. The people of the Crimea recently conducted a referendum in which the majority of the people in the region voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Despite the supposed importance of self-determination, the world community has denounced the results of this referendum and condemned the Russian annexation of the region.
An argument can be made that the presence of a large number of Russian military forces in the Crimea brings the legitimacy of the referendum into question; however the historical and ethnic forces at work in the region create a high likelihood that the results of the referendum were indeed authentic. If the results are indeed authentic, then what is the reason for the overwhelming negative response from the world community? The answer can be found in political realism and power politics. It is not in the interest of the U.S., the European Union, Ukraine, or many other actors for Russia to absorb the Crimea. Conversely it is in Russia’s interest as it increases Russia’s power. The principle of self-determination is not as important as those of power and national interest.
The balancing act between these principles can be seen in almost every international crisis. Why was there more of a reaction to genocide in the Balkans during the 1990’s as opposed to Africa? Why is the overthrow of a popularly elected president in Ukraine acceptable but a referendum in the Crimea is not? The question must always be asked as to the national interest of the actors involved and what they could potentially gain or lose as a result of the crisis. Principles such as human rights and self-determination become more and more relative when viewed through the lens of power politics. That is why the situation in the Crimea proves that political realism remains the dominant theory in international relations today.
Editorial by Christopher V. Spencer